As the arts industry becomes more professional, mainstream business is learning much from its particular brand of management. And their collaborations are becoming an art in itself, writes Jane Cherrington
AXA’s decision to shout tickets for 1000 children from disadvantaged backgrounds to see The Lion King in Melbourne could be seen as simply ticking a box on a corporate social responsibility agenda. But it was much more, says Chairman Rick Allert.
The special performance, held to launch AXA Asia Pacific Holdings’ $40 million charitable trust in 2005, provided direct benefits to the company through the involvement of its staff, he says.
“The interaction between our staff and the kids was everlasting for our people. And the positive feedback we received from our staff as a result of this was just outstanding.
“You can’t replace that as a motivating factor and team-building exercise for your employees,” says Allert, who, as well as being Chairman of The Coles Group, is the Chairman of the Major Performing Arts Board.
Corporate involvement in Australia ‘s arts sector is very much a “two-way deal”, says Alcoa Managing Director, Wayne Osborn. A Director of the Australia Business Arts Foundation (AbaF) and Chairman of the foundation’s Western Australia chapter, Osborn says partnerships between arts organisations and companies are much more businesslike and measured today.
He says part of AbaF’s role is to help arts bodies provide an articulate business case to companies and to show companies how to get long-term value out of the partnerships.
That’s not to say that the corporate social responsibility issues don’t figure large for Australia’s major arts sponsors. From Alcoa’s point of view it’s about community sustainability, says Osborn.
“We are a part of those communities in which we operate, and arts are part of life and part of the celebration of who we are and our creativity. So it’s hard to see a boundary between that aspect of life in a community and your own operation,” Osborn says.
At Goldman Sachs JBWere, a large sponsorship program that supports some of the biggest names in the arts sector, including theatre companies, orchestras and galleries, is based on achieving the best practical commercial results: but community spirited goals are also essential to the program, says Donna Lewis, Corporate Affairs.
“We’ve found, through our various arts sponsorships, that while they’re fundamentally entertaining, art and culture also teach all of us – our staff and our clients and those that we assist to be exposed to the arts – about the past, and they also create a very rich legacy for future generations,” Lewis says.
Providing staff to volunteer in arts organisations also fulfils a professional development role for KPMG. “We see it in people’s behaviour,” says Rob Bazzani, Partner, National Head of Mergers and Acquisitions at KPMG. “There’s a higher degree of confidence, a willingness to take a step forward and probably be a little bit more proactive in putting forward a different view,” says Bazzani, who oversees KPMG’s arts program in Victoria, and who is also a board member of the organisation that runs the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Tapping arts management
That employees could gain from a corporation’s connection with the arts makes sense given the frequent mention of the need for creativity and innovation in business.
“When people want to look afield to intrigue and motivate staff, the arts is where you need to go,” says Carolyn Barker, CEO of AIM Queensland and Northern Territory, and Chairman of The Queensland Orchestra.
“What makes a difference in business today? New products and benefits, a better level of customer service, more responsiveness, creative output and connection with the customer. How do you get that? Possibly one way is to understand how the arts sector works and how you can enthuse, motivate and engage your employees through that sector’s learnings,” Barker says.
And when it comes to lateral thinking, the art world virtually owns the concept. “Arts managers often have to adopt creative, lateral solutions to survive in an environment of limited resources and competing stakeholder demands,” says Harriet Elvin, Chief Executive Officer of the Cultural Facilities Corporation in the ACT.
One result is that arts organisations often develop highly creative partnerships and collaborations to achieve results, says Elvin. “For example they might work with organisations that could otherwise be regarded as competitors to achieve mutual goals.”
Changing audience expectations, trends in entertainment, technology and changes in society are all reasons for arts managers to be skilled at scanning the environment and adapting, Elvin says.
Artists, and arts organisations can also help businesses “interpret themselves”, says Kathy Keele, CEO of AbaF. “This is really useful if you’re going through a cultural change, for example, or you’re trying to really get at the essence of your brand. They can help you either draw it out, or talk it out or act it out,” she says.
“People like the Hay Group, which partners with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, help to get into what it feels like to be a leader, and what you have to do to be a leader – they compare the conductor to leaders in the organisation.”
This practical involvement by companies in the arts world is paying off for those associated with the Bell Shakespeare Company as well. “Some of the work we do in the rehearsal room, for example, has been quite enlightening for our board and sponsors, because some of those tactics and techniques are very successfully transferred to training programs in the corporate world,” says General Manager Jill Berry.
“I rely on my cast giving a first class performance, every night, eight shows a week, to about 160 performances. I’ve asked CEOs, ‘Do you get that level of performance from your executive team?’ And they don’t.
“It’s about leadership, it’s about trust, and it’s about loyalty and teamwork, because with a team of actors onstage and a team behind the stage, nothing is negotiable. If one domino falls, the whole lot fall over,” says Berry.
While acknowledging that corporate support for the arts has been growing, arts administrator, Sue Nattrass, a former CEO of the Victorian Arts Centre and Chief Executive of the Adelaide Festival, says it’s a concern that there are still those who don’t understand the “real value” of the arts.
“I mean, if you took it away, if you just shifted the arts out of society, we’d all hate life,” says Nattrass.
“People don’t really realise that it’s really core to who we are, how we spend our lives, what we do, how we express ourselves. It’s pretty much core to every part of life.”
Rick Allert agrees. “You can say the motherhood things like it’s good for the community, which it is, and that a healthy arts community is a healthy and vital community, and that’s true, but in a more direct sense arts organisations can show energy, innovation, leadership and skills management. The interconnection between the corporate and arts worlds can work very positively,” Allert says.